The Middle East’s Culture Industry Deals With The Pitfalls of Covid-19

Published November 17th, 2020 - 08:02 GMT
Its the final week to catch Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim's colourful solo exhibition- Memory Drum! Showing until 12 November 2020. (Instagram)
Its the final week to catch Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim's colourful solo exhibition- Memory Drum! Showing until 12 November 2020. (Instagram)
Festivals, concerts and exhibitions across the Middle East have suffered a rough year under coronavirus restrictions.

As second and third waves of the coronavirus pandemic sweep the globe, the human and economic costs continue to mount. One area that has been found to have especially weak immunity to a disruption of this kind is arts and culture.

Governments, businesses and individuals suffered serious financial setbacks earlier in the year when the initial wave of infections led to a total lockdown in many countries.

However, those working in the creative industries proved exceptionally vulnerable to the containment measures as exhibitions and concerts got canceled, festivals postponed and many other cultural activities delayed until further notice.

UNESCO has put annual revenue from cultural and creative sectors at $2.3 trillion and exports at more than $250 billion. The sectors employ nearly 30 million people worldwide while some forecasts put its contribution to global gross domestic product at about 10 percent in the near future.

Even as GCC countries reopened after months of lockdown, the art world was relegated to digital platforms for the foreseeable future.

As a result, many musicians, artists, photographers and comic illustrators saw their sources of income evaporate. Some cultural enterprises were forced out of business altogether.

Although a few professionals were able to shift online, others have struggled to adapt. For Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, founder of the Abu Dhabi Festival, digital will never compare with the real thing.

“The whole future is in this balance between virtual and real-life experience. Energy with people can’t be replaced,” she told a webinar in September, organized by the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute, on the impact of COVID-19 on festivals.

For Raed Asfour, an Amman-based theater director who also took part in the webinar, new technologies can play a role in recording and streaming concerts online, but the process may be prohibitively expensive.

Eckhard Thiemann, artistic director of Shubbak, London’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, said it may be a struggle convincing audiences to pay for concerts streamed online.

“We need to educate audiences to pay for online content. … If we provide authentic and genuine content, people will pay for it,” Thiemann said.

For artists and the creative industries, the shift to online has been a mixed bag of experiences. For some it was an opportunity to shake up tired old formats, while for others it offered a chance to collaborate.

“We have over 30 music centers here in the UAE and we consider each other competitors and we rarely collaborate with each other,” Tala Badri, executive director of the Centre for Musical Arts (CMA) in Dubai, told Arab News.

“But when COVID-19 hit, (we) got together and had a meeting to talk about what we were going to do to help each other. This is our livelihoods. Between us, we employ over 500 people (and) we teach over 4,000 people.” 

Lockdown measures have hit a sour note for music teachers as cash-strapped families cut back on their spending. “We have had no business for nearly six or seven months,” Badri said.

“When the lockdown happened in March, we moved all the lessons online. … That proved quite fortuitous for us, because we could move quickly and do that,” she said.

“The difficulties and the challenges occurred more towards the summer when people really started to feel the effects of COVID-19, (when) a lot of people lost their jobs. One of the first things that goes is your extra-curricular activities, isn’t it? So, a lot of people decided not to continue with lessons.”

The number of students registered with the school dropped “overnight” from 1,200 to fewer than a third. As a result, the rent, salaries for 30 members of staff, and business loan repayments soon became a major operational challenge.

“From a financial perspective, it was very difficult. I mean, we managed to cope very well, but in coping we were still not able to generate an income to keep ourselves going,” Badri said.

Emirati illustrator Saeed Arjumand, who owns a comic book store in Dubai, has seen similar challenges. “I think that was the biggest change. Out of nowhere, we had to shut down, and this was very sudden,” he said. His store reopened in summer, but business “was not as good as it used to be.”

Recognizing the challenges facing the creative industries, many artists and galleries started banding together, leading to projects and collaborations that, in all likelihood, would otherwise have not materialized.

“The best thing that happened for artists is that a lot of institutions and cultural foundations came together to offer support for us artists, who are struggling during this time,” said Fatima Albudoor, an Emirati photographer and printmaker.

“Art Jameel, for example, made an open call for artists to submit proposals and then they would give them a grant. So I applied for that and I was able to get a grant for a project which I came up with because of the lockdown.”

Another initiative was the “This Too Shall Pass” auction hosted by Sotheby’s in June in partnership with seven galleries from Dubai’s Al-Serkal Avenue.

“In the first few weeks of lockdown there were a lot of calls, discussions and surveys about how to support and preserve our arts community,” William Lawrie, founder of the Lawrie Shabibi art gallery in Dubai, told Arab News in June.

“In one of the Zoom calls, which included all of the galleries in Al-Serkal Avenue, the idea of an auction to support the galleries and their artists was mooted, with a charitable component to benefit vulnerable people made even more disadvantaged by COVID-19.”

In May, the Saudi art gallery Athr launched an initiative to provide financial grants to help support the work of artists in the Kingdom. It launched a project titled “Maan” (Arabic for together) in a bid to cushion the impact of the pandemic on the local art scene.

As part of its mission to keep the arts sustained and accessible to a wider audience, Jeddah-based Athr collaborated with seven artists who agreed to produce limited-edition works to fund the grants.

Canadian-Iranian expressionist Khorshid Akhavan says travel restrictions and a fall in commissions have taken a toll on her earnings, as customers have cut back on such luxuries. At the same time, she says, the pandemic has been a powerful source of inspiration.

“For me it has been both positive and negative, I would say,” she told Arab News. “The positive would be that all the emotions came up, so I could come up with some great art to express my feelings.”

Silver linings, perhaps. And as Alkhamis-Kanoo said during September’s webinar, the pandemic has certainly forced artists to be “more resilient” and to start working collectively.

“It is incredible what I am seeing in terms of relations and innovation,” she said. “We connect, and we find each other, and we unite through our festivals to fight back.”

Looking on the bright side, the Group of 20 culture ministers recently pledged to support the global cultural economy.

Addressing the virtual meeting, organized in the first week of November as part of the International Conferences Program, Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan said: “This high-level cultural presence at Saudi G20 presidency illustrates our shared belief in the vital role of culture in propelling the innovation ecosystem of economies. The onus is on us to preserve our shared heritage for future generations and to produce and disseminate culture in a sustainable manner.”

This article has been adapted from its original source.

Copyright: Arab News © 2022 All rights reserved.

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